‘Ah me lads, ye shud only seen us gannin’’ The Blaydon Race – my favourite road race…
‘Ah me lads, ye shud only seen us gannin’’
The Blaydon Race. My favourite road race and my sixth time running it. Logically, it’s not a great contender for a favourite race. It’s an irregular distance. It’s a congested city centre start, and most of the route is on tarmac roads, with nothing in the way of scenery, unless you like flyovers. But there’s something about this race.
Maybe it’s the way runners takeover part of the city centre usually known for beer and kebabs. Maybe it’s because it marks the start of summer. All I know is that it has a great atmosphere and it always makes me smile.
Coming into it just two days after smashing my PB at Northumberland Standard Triathlon, I really wasn’t focused on getting anything from this race, other than turning up and enjoying it. My legs were still feeling the impact of cycling and running and muscles were tight. But still, changing into my running kit after work and pinning on my number, I felt a thrill of excitement.
It’s a bit of a tradition that there’s a group photo before the start. And within minutes of arriving in the Bigg Market I’d spotted a collection of runners I know from parkrun and Fetch Everyone. We smile and pose for the phone cameras.
The atmosphere is building as we’re corralled into the narrow streets leading down towards the start line. I feel like I want a bit of time to gather my thoughts, so slip away from the group and head towards where the band is playing the usual rendition of ‘The Blaydon Races’ and snap a couple more pictures of the crowds.
There’s a bit of a delay to the start. We don’t know it at the time, but there’s been an ambulance on the course, helping a non runner, and we’re waiting for a clear road.
Then comes a surge and a bit of a cheer as the crowds start to move, walking forwards at first, approaching the start line marked by the ringing of a hand bell with a couple of surges and stops. Just before the line, I spot parkrunner Tove and give her a joyous high five. Then I’m off and running through the streets of my adopted home city.
4,000 runners dodging each others’ feet and elbows as we navigate the twists, turns, kerbs and bollards must look like the most bizarrely colourful flock of starlings in full flight. I manage to weave my way through the space comfortably, despite squinting into the low evening sunshine. I wish I’d worn my sunglasses.
I’m feeling good. Relaxed. No thoughts about times or targets, just ready to enjoy this race. I’m bouncing along feeling surprisingly fresh, like I’m running well within myself, but not deliberately slowly, like I would be on a long run. It’s a great feeling, like I’m flowing along the road.
Along the Scotswood Road, runners spread out, finding space, falling into a more consistent pace after the flurry and scurry of the first mile. There’s a constant stream of coloured shirts and sounds of breathing as I pass and am passed in turn.
I continue feeling relaxed and strong, able to shout out club names and recognise runners as we run the new out and back section after the Blaydon bridge. The route here used to run along the riverside path, but now it’s on road and it feels a little wider and less congested.
I haven’t looked at my watch at all. I have no idea of what pace I’ve been doing, but it’s felt good and steady. By the time my legs start to feel a little heavy and the pace starts to feel harder work, I calculate there’s less than a mile to go and push on.
Through the industrial estate, I pass a lady wearing a small back pack who I’ve been targeting for a while. The supporters start to gather in droves and there’s a real sense of the finish line approaching. I find a little more in the tank and stretch out my stride, but I resist really picking up until I can see the blue finish funnel.
With less than 100m to go, I surge into a sprint across the grass playing field. The man beside me comes with me and I say ‘all the way to the end!’ He takes me on and beats me fair and square as I cross the line, breathless but smiling. We shake hands and grin.
I step aside to catch my breath before heading to pick up my goody bag and the much prized race t-shirt. I look at my watch and can’t believe it when it says – 50:25. On tired legs and with the relative effort I felt I was putting in, I’d easily expected to be a good 4 or 5 minutes slower than that.
A good running pal of mine often says ‘relax and enjoy’ before a race. Well i did just that at Blaydon and came away with a really decent run. I hope I can do that again in future races.
After I finished the race I heard that a runner had had a heart attack and collapsed in the first mile. I’m really glad that he’s now recovering, thanks to the quick work of three nurses who were running and gave him CPR, then finished the race. I always say runners look out for each other. Those nurses did a great job that night. Read the full story on The Chronicle website
It’s fair to say I wasn’t best prepared for this race. But sometimes they’re the best ones.
I’d spent the early part of the week working in Dublin, a city I always enjoy visiting and where I’m always made to feel welcome. I flew in and did a couple of writing workshops, then flew back the following day, feeling rather tired, having not slept well in an overly warm hotel room.
But my legs were well rested, having done nothing much more than a few decent walks and a bit of a swim, and it was a pleasantly warm summer’s evening, so I headed off to Monkseaton High School for the start of the race.
This is one of those great local club runs, well organised by North Shields Poly. Not a big corporate or charity fundraiser, just a good chance for a decent fast race. I picked up my number and timing chip in the school and headed out to do a bit of a warm up.
There’s a good sampling of club runners at this race, with Saltwell, Tyne Bridge, Wallsend, Derwentside and Elvet Striders‘ vests in evidence. It’s a two lap route, mainly on tarmac and pavements, but with a small section on a hard gravelly trail, to form a big circle around the school.
As usual I bounced off way too fast, realising as I ran alongside Alister from Elvet Striders that I was in danger of making things difficult for myself. He gave me a pace check and I dropped back as I caught my breath and settled into a more realistic rhythm.
I really didn’t have a plan for this race. I wasn’t consciously pacing or looking at my watch. I just ran to feel and my legs felt strong and my stride firm as we ran out up Rake Lane toward North Tyneside hospital. It’s a bit of a gradual uphill, but barely noticeable, and I didn’t notice it on the first lap.
Smiley and encouraging marshals kept us on track all the way round. Special mention goes to the chap who stood in front of the bench holding up arrows to make sure no one went clattering into it. I found a nice bit of space and just settled into my own race, passing people and being passed throughout the run.
Last time I ran this course, it was in the other direction and I thought there was more off road, on trail surface. As I turned away from the main road, the sweet thick buttery smell of the fields full of yellow rape flowers and local farms hit my nostrils and I spotted a clump of blue harebells tucked into a grassy verge.
There were a few km markers and as we came round for the end of the first lap, I stole a look at my watch, to see how I was faring at the half way point. I was surprised to see a time not too much slower than this year’s fastest 5k, and to feel that I was still running strong.
Although runners were never out of sight in this race, I was out on my own for good sections, concentrating on reeling in a group in front and hoping those behind didn’t catch up to me. Whenever anyone approached to pass, I tried to stick with them to push my pace on as hard as possible.
I slowed unconsciously the second time up Rake Lane, still not really aware of the slight incline until another runner came past and said, “I’ll be glad when this hill is over.” Turning the corner away from the main road, I found another burst of pace as the path levelled out again.
At the 7km marker, I was still feeling strong and comfortable. A quick check through my form, making sure I wasn’t hitting the ground too hard, picking up my feet and keeping my shoulders down and I started to work out the minutes left to run. I could feel a slight tightening through my left hip and quads, but nothing to worry about.
I played catch up with a couple of other runners through this last section, passing and then being passed by them in turn. At 9km, I made sure I picked up the effort a little, trying not to leave everything to a last desperate sprint finish.
A shout out from the sidelines as I turned the final corner and I picked up into a sprint for the last couple of hundred metres. Over the line, stop the watch and boom! I was pleasantly surprised to see 54:27 – my fastest time over this distance since 2013.
Although not a keenly anticipated and targeted race, I felt like I’d had a really good run. Time to focus on cycling and swimming for the next couple of weeks in preparation for my big race of the season, the Northumberland Standard triathlon on 7 June.
It’s always good to be back at this race, the first one I ever did in 2009. Traditionally one of the first events on the calendar, it has a celebratory atmosphere, with a chance to catch up with friends and runners, and no pressure, because it’s the first race.
It felt good to be fastening on a number and preparing to race. The sun was shining and the coast had put on its most welcoming face. My aim was just to run and see where I was at.
The last four weeks I’ve focused on run and speed training. I’ve been pushing myself to go that bit faster over shorter distances, running intervals, to try and break my habit of always running at a comfortable pace. I think it’s been working as the faster paces always feel uncomfortable, but I’ve been doing some decent parkrun times and could feel myself becoming used to pushing on a bit harder.
I bumped into lots of running pals at the start, did a bit of a warm up and felt quite nice and relaxed as I waited for the start. As i crossed the timing mat, I told myself to ‘go hard and hang on’ and bounded away to find some clear space.
I managed to negotiate the crowded start really well, without having to dodge and weave about too much. My feet felt light and I was enjoying running in the crowd, but very much in my own space.
As I came down the bank onto the fish quay, I got a bit of a stab of a stitch in my right upper rib, so I focused on taking some deeper breaths and eased back on the pace a little. I had the feeling I may have gone off a bit too fast. As a couple of speedy runners I recognised cruised along from behind me to pass, I knew I’d most likely over cooked that first mile.
Along the quayside, I tried to find a better pace, one that was sustainable, but still hard. It took a while for my stitch to disappear, but I’d shaken it off before the steep incline up towards the priory.
For once, I didn’t try to power up the climb, but just kept the pace consistent, and tried to keep my breathing easy. It worked. I was very happily powering up the second incline and feeling strong when I was spotted by running pal Flip, taking photos of us toiling up the hill.
Definitely one of my better runs up that hill. Last week’s hill reps on the same route gave me a real psychological boost, and at the top, I just kept going, with no real need to recover, taking advantage of the slight drop down towards Longsands.
Almost half race distance as I passed the water stop and I was feeling good. Now I started to pull myself along by targeting runners in front, to catch and overtake. My usual run route was passing in a blur and I was barely paying any attention to the scenery.
Some people watching made a comment about it being easy, along the lines of, “You could beat most of them..”. Hmm, I thought, I’d like to see you try. Sure we weren’t going as fast as the really speedy runners who would be approaching the finish by now, but we were by no means slow.
All along the course I kept getting shout outs. I wasn’t always able to spot who they came from, but they always helped put a smile on my face and an extra bound in my step. I also took the chance to high five a few kids standing watching. I don’t think it slowed me down very much, and it did boost my attitude and enjoyment.
I was avoiding my watch, just running to feel, but I started to feel the strain on my legs somewhere around 4 miles. I think I stopped focusing on runners to pass, and became conscious that my legs and hips were starting to feel the strain. It was costing me more effort to keep the pace.
Still I pushed on, reminding myself to keep my feet light. Sometimes it felt really serene, like I was floating, and I tried to hold onto that, but I was definitely feeling the strain.
I passed a couple of runners who had stopped to stretch or slowed to a walk. I knew that even though I was working hard, I wouldn’t have to stop, so I used that to push on again, hoping to make the most of the closing stages.
There’s a bit of a incline again around 5 miles. Not really noticeable, but a pull on your legs as you pass by the links and the crowds start gathering close to the path. Here I was watching out for my trainer Ian and his wife Kelda and was pleased to spot them and give them a wave. Ian shouted ‘Dig in’ – which is just what I was doing and just what I needed.
Despite my best efforts, I could feel I was slowing down a bit. There was a runner in a long sleeved pink top who had been near me at the start of the race, and who I’d clocked as I passed a little way before. She came through on my right hand side and try as I might, I couldn’t keep pace with her and lost her in the distance.
Still, run your own race, I told myself, knowing there was less than a mile to go, and preparing to push for a sprint finish. At the 6 mile mark, it gets a bit crowded with people watching the run and faster runners making their way back to cars and buses. I tried to push on and found another gear, but was still keeping something back until I could see the line and power down for the finish. A good shout from the Elvet Striders finish line posse and I was over the line!
My time on my watch was 56:05 and I don’t think I could have asked for much more than that today. I don’t like to set too many time targets for races, because I think they become self limiting. But I had hoped to run at around 9 min mile pace for as long as possible. With my first mile being well below that, I averaged out at 9:02/mile. So I am very happy with that, and the nice race T-shirt we all got in our goody bags.
It was great to see some of my running friends at the finish and hear of their good races and to hear of some terrific PBs. It’s not the fastest that I’ve run that route, but it’s more than 30 secs faster than last year. I’m feeling strong and confident in my training at the moment, so it’s a really promising start to my run and tri season.
In superhero capes, fairy wings and wedding dresses,
Like lambs and tigers, or Scooby Doo
When the circus is in town,
We’re the clowns who dodge the dodgems.
And if we’ve been good boys and girls
Santa even brings his sleigh.
We greet companions and strangers alike,
Laugh, smile, make our excuses about the night before…
But by nine o’clock, we’re focused,
Ready to start our watches.
We huddle like penguins,
Applaud like seals,
And chase those green shirts like a husky pack
Faster faster, on, on.
We stand. We smile.
We shout. We wave.
We stamp our feet.
We wear our high viz and wish we’d brought another layer.
We dive and weave and watch our elbows.
We dodge puddles and pats
And start a stampede.
We are mums and dads, sons and daughters, locals and just visiting.
Our colours spread out like a rainbow,
Across the moor to Malsgate and on beneath the trees.
We sprint. We wobble. We walk. We run.
We breathe. We pant. We fight. We pound.
We are fit. We are fat.
We are freezing.
We are over forty and feeling it.
We carry fridges, push buggies, lead our hounds, give piggy backs.
We come with doubts and fear, hopes and dreams.
We keep on coming.
We click the button and pray the timer works.
“Well done. Keep moving. Stay in line.”
We sweat. We shake hands, slap shoulders.
We try not to be sick.
We fumble for tokens with frozen fingers,
Scan soggy barcodes
And say breathless thank yous.
We stick around for cake and chat,
Or head off for breakfast
Our victory over those who stayed in bed.
By 10am, it’s like we were never here at all.
We are fierce.
We are fabulous
We are friends.
We are family.
We are Newcastle parkrun.
[I’ve taken a bit of a break from this blog while I’ve been training for a charity cycle trek in Vietnam and Cambodia for Lend with Care. You can find out more about that on cycleforcare.co.uk. But it was nice to pay tribute today to all my friends and the volunteers at Newcastle parkrun, which plays a big part in helping me stay fit, healthy and has given me the confidence to take on new challenges like the cycle ride, and reading my poem in public.]
“Aren’t we lucky?” said the lady who finished today’s parkrun at Whitley Bay around the same time as me as we walked away from the hubbub of the finish line. And today, under bright blue autumn skies with the sun on my face and the sound of the waves in my ears I did feel very fortunate indeed.
Here in the north east, we’re lucky enough to have a great number of parkruns from Middlesbrough through to Sunderland, Gateshead, Newcastle and right on up to the new route at Druridge Bay. My home run is actually Newcastle, although geographically, Whitley Bay is my closest. It’s close enough to allow me to run there and back, should I fancy a long run and take it steady, which is what I opted to do today.
I gave myself plenty of time to jog along to get there, so I’d had a really good warm up, before I huddled among the gathered runners ready for the start. The sun was in our eyes as we negotiated the first few twists and turns along the course and the number of runners helped make sure I kept my starting pace steady.
Once down onto the lovely flat promenade, we start to spread out and it’s easier to dodge past a few runners, or to be overtaken myself. I’m going easy today, it just feels nice to be out for a run.
At every turn or junction there’s a smiling marshal and a small chorus of thank yous from runners like me who have the breath to utter them.
Off the prom and up the small rise, I pick up my feet and use my arms to power up the incline, then cruise down the yellow stone path and over the bridge, before the second climb back up and round towards the road. I watch my feet over the cracked tarmac along the top path, heading back round towards the skate park and up another little rise to circle around the first lap.
Along the prom for the second time and the fastest runners have already crossed the finish line. How I wish I had their speed! But I’m feeling good, just enjoying being out in the fresh air today, and I start to catch a few runners in front of me. Reeling them in, slowly, one by one takes my mind off my legs which are starting to ache now and as I increase my pace, my breathing gets heavier and louder.
Still here I am again, about to climb the small set of rises and head back round to the road. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a lady running with a bright red buggy. That must be hard work up that hill!
By the time I’ve made it down onto the promenade for the final stretch, she’s caught and overtaken me, inspiring me to put a bit of a spurt on in the last few hundred metres and finish with a sprint.
Out of breath, I collect my token and walk over to get my barcode scanned. Hazel who takes my token from me, says “I like your blog”, which is a really nice surprise and makes me smile.
I’m very lucky that I found running as a means to keep fit back in 2008, and that parkrun has helped me maintain and build on that fitness. I’ve used the regular weekly run as part of my training for races like the Great North Run or the triathlons I do through the summer.
But more importantly, parkrun has introduced me to volunteering and to new friends. I do enjoy running, and am currently chasing down my 100th parkrun, but I really enjoy volunteering too. It’s fun to see parkrun from the other side, to appreciate how it works and to see all the runners from the fastest to the slowest, the old to the young all taking part.
My time today wasn’t my fastest, but parkrun isn’t always about being speedy. It really is for everyone and I think you see that as a volunteer.
So, yes, I do feel lucky to have a free, weekly, timed 5k run as a motivation to get up and out and get moving all year round. Lucky to be able to run along some of the finest north east coastline. And lucky to have the incredible support of the volunteers who make parkrun happen week in, week out all over the UK and beyond.
Start at the beginning. There’s a lot to tell. So get yourself a cuppa… And if you fancy a prologue, skip over to Running Up Top Down Under for my race preview. But please come back…
I was really relaxed about this race. Good night’s sleep, no worries getting ready or getting there, just nice and calm and easy. I’ve no expectations that I’m going to run anything like PB pace, so it’s just a case of go out and enjoy it.
For the first time ever, I make it to the Fetch photo. And for the first time for this race, I’m wearing my Fetch T-shirt. I have a nice chat with Paul, before assorted Fetchies assemble. A smaller gathering than previous years, but nice to have company all the same.
We went our separate ways, me heading for a wander back over the media bridge and a loo stop, then making my way to the starting pens. The sun was beating down at this point, and it felt far hotter than had been forecast.
Time seemed to have speeded up and as I walked back from the start towards the white zone, I heard the dying strains of Abide with Me. I’d missed the moment of reflection – something I really like about this race. No matter. I had my own little moment of thoughtfulness just before the start, when I recited the names of runners and others who are no longer with us and dedicated my race to them.
Walking back, it was great to see the stars of the race. Not the elite athletes who I didn’t catch a glimpse of, but the very special people who have run every single Great North Run. I had a quick chat with a couple of them, including Ann, one of the few women to have run all 34, dressed as she usually is as Minnie Mouse. What a lovely, lovely lady.
The pens seemed particularly well packed this year, as I joined in the warm up. Normally, by this time I’m starting to get excited and nervous, but I was still quite low key. I chatted to a few runners nearby as the races got underway, but wasn’t near enough to see any of the action on the screens. We gave Mo a massive cheer though!
And then we were off. Well walking forward towards the start at any case. I reckon it took 15 minutes to get to the line and, I almost missed it! I seem to remember it being more prominent in previous races, but there was the mat, so I hit the Garmin start button and began to run.
The plan was to go steady – 10 min miling for as long as I could manage. I had high hopes of sustaining that kind of pace for at least 8 miles after trying it out last weekend, and maybe going a little further if I could. I felt nice, bouncy, light of heart, no pressure on. And despite the thousands of runners around me, in my own little running bubble.
I ran to the right hand side, down under the motorway passes and started an oggy, oggy, oggy. I knew the first mile had been a bit quick, but figured I’d settle once I was over the bridge. As it approached, I realised, I was on the wrong side to spot my top running buddy Jo Shewry who had said she would be there. I managed to squeeze across to the left and give the whole family sweaty, smiley hugs.
I kept getting shouts on the bridge – not sure if they were people I knew, or just enthusiastic race vest readers, but it was brilliant. One guy turned round and said “You’re popular!”
“Welcome to my city,” I replied with a massive smile. I love running across the Tyne Bridge and that was a moment for the scrapbook.
The band on the roundabout were playing ‘Blaydon Races’ and I was very happy, beginning to settle and find the right pace. But blimey, it was hot. And this course, on tarmac and concrete roads, is unrelenting. There is no shade.
I grabbed water at 3 miles and had my first jelly baby. I was still very much in my running bubble, just following the lines in the centre of the road, managing, as I always seem to do at this race, to find space and not be too jostled or held up. But people were walking. They started walking really early on. People who looked like good runners, walking the inclines, or just looking to get some respite from the sun.
At 5 miles I wasn’t feeling so bouncy. I hadn’t paid much attention to my watch, but I knew my pace had dropped. At 5 miles, there’s still a long way to go. And I knew then that I didn’t have the desire, or the fire in my belly to push hard. Given my run training and race times this year, I was never going to be in with a shout of matching my best, and suddenly any kind of time target didn’t seem to matter.
I didn’t collapse or despair or beat myself up. I just said ‘so what?’ And decided to go easy on myself by running at whatever pace my legs felt like. But I would run. I wouldn’t walk.
I started breaking the rest of the race down into chunks – 6 miles and another jelly baby, halfway and then another water station.
After a second good gulp of water I did pick up a little, felt happier in myself, and realised that I needed to come out of my bubble and start drawing support from the crowds.
There were some great kids out on the course, shouting things like “You’ve done really well to get this far”, or pointing out all the costumes and fancy dress. “Look daddy, a boy in a dress…!”
My breathing was easy, too comfortable for a race really, but I just didn’t have the desire to work any harder and at times my hips were giving me warning twinges, telling me to go easy. The briefest bit of cloud cover, or the shadows cast on the ground from motorway barriers was a welcome respite from the sun.
I sort of lost track of where I was on the route as I was just in ‘ keep moving and get to the finish mode’. And I actually thought I’d missed a water station at mile 8, but actually it’s mid way between 8 and 9. I really wanted to hit this station, even though I’d taken on water at 6 miles, because I knew this is where Tanni Grey Thompson would be.
Tanni Grey Thompson – 16 times an Olympic medallist, eight times winner of the Great North Run and one of the UK’s best known disabled athletes – hands out bottles of water at the station between 8 and 9 miles on the Great North Run.
She’s handed me my water 4 times now. The first was totally unexpected, but in subsequent year, I’ve made a point of looking out for her. And there she was again.
Not caring about my time, and running with my phone in my Tune Belt arm band, I stopped for a selfie and a chat. Tanni was lovely, gave me a big smile and kept talking and handing out bottles as she said it was hellishly hot and even the elites had looked like they were suffering. I said thank you, told her it meant a lot to me and I’d tweet the picture. Best Great North Run picture ever!
I really picked up after that. Getting to 8 miles had been a bit of a struggle, but now, even with 5 still to go, I felt more confident that I could manage it without completely breaking myself. 5 miles is still a long way, especially when you know that your race plan is out the window, but I lifted my head and tried to pull support from the crowds.
Heading into South Shields, I kept my eyes out for the next cheering point manned by a couple of Elvet Striders. I’d been told it would be where it would e, but my brain couldn’t keep track of the course and I wondered if I’d spot them. No fear of that when there’s a huge banner over the road sign! I ran over to the left hand side of the road, waving and shouting and got a high 5 from Dave.
That took me to 10 miles. And at 10 there’s just a parkrun to go. It was going to take me a while, but I was going to run every step of the way. My mood was positive, even if my pace was, by my standards, barely a shuffle.
People all around me were walking now. And I was running so slowly it would take me a few paces to overtake them, but I just kept on moving. I tried not to look too far ahead, just focusing on being in the moment and moving forward.
And then I saw the sea and my heart lifted again. It’s a nasty little sharp downhill before the left turn onto the coast road, but I was smiling as I ran down it and headed over to the right hand side, ready to spot my supporters.
Loads of shouts and high fives as I came into the last mile and a bit. I know this is a long road and I was in no shape to push it, so I just kept it steady and smiled and gave a thumbs up to everyone who yelled my name.
I was scanning the crowds for Gary, knowing I was already beyond the time I’d said he could expect me, but hoping he’d hold on a little longer. I heard him shout, saw the camera and waved and smiled. By this point, I was running so slowly, he was able to run behind the crowds and catch me again along the last mile.
800m to go and in the past, I’ve started to up a gear here, but not today, there’s not a lot left in my legs and I really don’t care what time I finish in. Even at 200m, I only rustle up a slight knee lift and then give it a sort of pathetic sprint over the grass and Mobot over the line. I stop my watch at 2:30:50 – my slowest ever time at this race by a good 20 minutes.
But I’ve made it, and I’m okay, and I get a great big Strider shout from Angie, collecting finisher’s chips before making my way through the goody bag pick up and to the collection point where Gary is waiting.
Refuelled, rehydrated on trying to make sense of my experience by writing this blog, here are my reflections on this year’s race:
I’m pleased I kept my head and didn’t let my ambition to be better beat me today. I don’t really give myself a great shot at half marathons anyway – only entering this one and not really doing the consistent running mileage throughout the year.
Will I go further? I said I’d ask myself the question at the end again this year, but I knew before the start, that the answer was no, not next year, and not in future unless I burn with the desire to do it, like I did for my first Great North Runs. For now, I’d rather get lean and strong and faster over shorter distances again. And next year I want to make the most of my potential in triathlon and get a decent standard distance done.
But I don’t think I’m done with this race just yet. I’d like to enjoy it again, and not necessarily try and race it. I’d like to come back and maybe help someone else enjoy it too.
Thanks to Gary for supporting me and making it so easy for me to get to and from this race, and for buying me fish and chips. Thanks to Ian Turrell for giving me the training plans, fitness and encouragement to take on these challenges. Thanks to all the supporters, those who know me and those to whom I was just a name on a shirt. And special thanks to Tanni for being my water carrier again. Moments like that make this a very special run.
Stats (the splits are good for a laugh)
13.1 miles 2:30:50
2. 10:31 (hugged my buddies on the Tyne Bridge)
9. 13:25 (Tanni Grey Thompson water stop)
The traditional warm-up race for the Great North Run put on by Tyndale Harriers, is a well organised run along quiet and closed roads between the outskirts of Hexham and Ovingham in the Tyne Valley. It gets its nickname from the excellent sandwich and jelly served at Ovingham School at the end – a brilliant incentive and reward after a long run.
I was a bit nervous. Even though I had a plan to run at a sensible pace and use it as a test for next week, there’s something about it being a race. I was further unsettled by a couple of changes to the usual instructions for parking due to an out of action bridge and realised I’d been dreaming about getting lost and turning up late to the race.
In reality, I found the parking spot in plenty of time to catch the first of the transport buses to Hexham. It was sunny and warm, so I left my extra layers in the car, but took my sunglasses and a pocket full of jellybabies to the start. Once I’d collected my number and chip from the sports centre, there was a good deal of waiting around before the start of the race.
I saw a few people I know from parkrun, but far fewer than in previous years. With so many great local races on at this time of year, we tend to spread out a bit. I wasn’t really in a very talkative mood. I find other runner’s nervousness infectious and wanted to just keep myself right in my own head today.
It’s a good walk to the start of the race, on the edge of a slightly less than picturesque industrial estate. But once off and along the country roads it soon opens up into a really pleasant course.
It felt like I was barely among the running pack as the colourful club shirts stretched away into the distance and the crowd soon thinned out. My goal was to go steady, see if I could feel 10 min miles, just using my watch to check now and again, but not being a slave to it.
I ran the first couple of miles near to a group of Saltwell Harriers girls. They kept me amused with their chatter as I ran mostly just in front of them, or sometimes just behind a leading pair, one of whom was called Helen. We were near the back of the pack, but I make it a rule never to look back in a race, and it was clear from their chat that they were targeting 10 min miles too.
The pace felt nice, just right actually, not too slow, just steady and easy on the breathing. I did feel like I was holding back, but knew I’d have to do that to keep going strong. The sun had come out hot, so we took what shade we could by the road sides and I got asked a couple of questions about my shirt after putting ‘The Scribbler’ on the back.
As we came round into Corbridge, we were a bit held up by a combine harvesting machine in the road. Even running alongside it on the pavements felt narrow. Helen ran beside me for a while at this point and I learned she was just coming back after a a long injury lay off and using the run as a test to see if she was up to doing the Great North Run. I thought she was a strong runner. As we left the village, she dropped back to run with the others in her group, and I kept expecting them to come past me, but they never did again.
There’s a long slow climb at about four miles, but at this point I was feeling strong. I just kept my legs turning over at the same pace, but took smaller steps and focused on keeping my heart rate and breathing nice and even, not powering through and burning myself out. I suspected my pace target would have dropped a bit, but that was okay.
There were some good patches of shade and trees around this section and a welcome water station between 4 and 5 miles. I dropped my first bottle, but managed to grab a second and keep moving, drinking on the run, practising for next week.
Now I was running on my own, slightly aware of the group behind me, but feeling like I’d pulled away from them. Over the next mile or so I managed to reel in the two other runners in immediate sight – a guy and a girl in a Tyne Bridge Harriers vest.
One of my running friends recently paid me a compliment about being a ‘thinking runner’. That’s very true, but sometimes it’s been to my detriment, in that I think too much, or endlessly ponder the ‘what ifs’. Some of my best runs have been when I’ve stopped consciously thinking and just focused on the immediate now, a bit like meditation I guess.
I was trying to do that today. Keeping it simple, having a plan of 10 minute miles and jelly babies at 3, 6 and 9 miles. When I could feel my mind wandering, I just kept saying to myself, ‘keep going like this’. I had confidence in my pace, it felt nice and I was relaxed, so ‘keep going like this’.
As the watch clicked over from mile 5 to mile 6, I stole a glance at my pace and saw 10:01. Lovely, bang on target. As I saw the 7 mile marker, I thought to myself ‘just a parkrun to go’ and dug in up a little rise.
It was hot now, and the hedge-lined lanes alongside the fields didn’t offer much shade. My thoughts had become a bit knotty, my breathing heavy and the effort to keep the same pace, all the more harder.
I started to break down the rest of the race, took another jelly baby and told myself, ‘water at mile 8, jelly baby at 9, and then you’re in the last mile.’ I thought I’d got myself out of a tricky spot, but later my splits will show I had started to lose pace. A cheery and unexpected shout from a running friend helped lift my spirits around this point too.
But, yes, I really was starting to feel it and at mile 8, I let my mental drive go and gave myself permission to slack off if it meant I just kept moving. My feet were really hot and I was no longer running with good form. I tried a couple of times to move more onto the forefoot, but couldn’t sustain it, so drifted back to a flat shuffle. ‘Just this’, I told myself, ‘just keep going like this’ – keep it simple, accept the moment and just keep moving forward.
Up ahead there was a girl with a blonde pony tail walking. Slowly, slowly, I reeled her in, then gave her an encouraging shout as I passed. I was really pleased when she started running again, even though she soon outpaced me. Sometimes we all need a little boost and she was obviously a better runner than me, maybe battling her own mental demons or the heat.
Into mile 9 and it’s almost done. Apart from the hill. Yeah, it’s a killer at this stage of a 10 miler and although I remembered it was to come, I couldn’t exactly remember where it was. As I peeled up out of a tree covered section, it became unmistakable.
It really was a shuffle. The teensiest, tiniest steps that were barely any faster than walking, but I was determined I was going to run every step, even if it was horribly slowly. The marshals near the top were brilliant, no doubt having seen many pained faces that day. I managed to get to the top without blowing up and then I knew it was as good as over.
Just a long, slightly twisting road to the finish. Tantalising in that you couldn’t quite see where the end would be, although I could sense it was soon as runners started to appear running back up the road from the finish. With encouragement all round, I tried to pick up my feet again and push on for the last little bit. One guy said, just 1/4 mile to go, and I believed him, and he was right.
But still you can’t see the finish as it’s round a right turn. But as I approached, a girl appeared from nowhere at my shoulder and overtook me. I was done, I just wanted to finish. And then, no, I wasn’t having it. Spotting a narrow path along the verge that I thought I remembered as being within sprint distance of the finish, I put the pedal down. She came with me for a bit, pushing on, but I found another gear and saw the inflatable finish line and went for it. Thank you, whoever you were for getting a sprint finish out of me today. That really wasn’t on the cards.
I crossed the line in 1h47 by my watch (official time to follow). Not quite 10 min mile pace all the way round, but I was very happy with my run. I’d kept my head, run to plan, not lost myself in ‘what ifs’ or stressed too much about pacing. I’d tested out my race kit and water and fuelling and it all went pretty well.
I shake my head at the thought that I ran that course in under 1h30 3 years ago. How well was I running then! I don’t think I ever realised. But back then I was mainly running and had much more specific training and mileage in my locker.
Today, I’m feeling positive, mentally and physically strong and as ready as I can be to give the Great North Run a good shot next weekend. But advice and encouragement is always welcome.